“Restrepo”
 
            “Restrepo” is the real-life war movie.  It’s so raw and spontaneous that we can’t help but be moved by witnessing what it’s really like to be an American soldier in Afghanistan .
            The action takes place between 2007-8, when Second Platoon, Battle Company, 173rd Airborne Brigade, was deployed to the Korangal Valley , high in the mountains of rural Afghanistan .  As soon as they arrive, they are under fire, but we never see the enemy.  We just hear the bullets, see the tracers, and feel the explosions.  The enemy hits suddenly, fights furiously, and then retreats stealthily.  All our little platoon can do, at first, is try to return the fire, in a cacophony of panicked communications, cursing and yelling, orders given and received, requests for air support screamed into headsets, and, after the chaos, upon finding a fallen comrade, the anguished sobbing of uncontrollable grief.
            Captain Keaney decides to take the initiative, and to establish a forward outpost, which they name Restrepo, after one of their buddies who was killed the first day.  The Captain assures his men that they’re ahead of their predecessors, they took definitive action, and they are on the offensive.  But any patrol on a goat-trail mountain path can be ambushed at any time.  The local populace frankly explains that if they cooperate, the Taliban will kill them.  (This effectively masks their true loyalties, and allows them to negotiate without appearing to take sides.) 
            Captain Keaney appears to be better at military leadership than he is at diplomacy with the local elders.  In the weekly “shura,” where the locals are represented by old men with henna-dyed beards, he alternately blizzards them with propaganda (“we’re going to bring peace and prosperity to your land, and you’re going to participate in the bounty that we bring”) and stonewalls their requests.  In once instance, it seems there was a cow that was trapped in a barbed wire fence, and after discovering it, the U.S. soldiers gratefully “put it out of its misery” and had it for dinner.  The town elders want reimbursement, to the tune of $500 cash, but that idea is nixed by high command, and instead the elders are told they’ll have to be content with an equivalent amount of rice and grain.  They say they’d rather have the money.  So much for dabbling in indigenous politics.
            After a period of huddling behind their perch on the high ground, the 15-man (no female soldiers are evident here) platoon is ordered to participate in Operation Rock Avalanche, which takes the fighting to the local village, where the insurgents are surely hiding out, and, predictably, the soldiers find that they’re charging into households full of old men, women, and children, and in some cases they’ve inadvertently wounded some civilians.  Of course, it’s impossible to tell, when you’re on the receiving end of blazing weaponry, who’s doing the actual firing when the enemy isn’t wearing any identifiable uniform.  This is similar to the agonizing dynamics of the long, horrible conflict in Vietnam , where the American soldiers operate under tremendous pressure because they’re oftentimes “fighting blind.”  And the enemy, of course, is not.
            The men don’t appear to have the drug and alcohol abuse problems so prevalently reported in Viet Nam .  But afterwards, in their post-deployment commentaries that intersperse the live action hand-helds, it’s obvious that the images and memories are still seared into their consciousness and conscience.  There are some things, they say, that still give them nightmares, and that they fear they’ll never get over. 
            Worst of all, the strategic aftermath is that soon after the platoon’s recall (back to Italy ), and after suffering casualties that truly affected the morale of the men, the Americans simply withdrew from the Valley, and left it to the Taliban.  It was considered strategically insignificant.  Tell that to the families of the soldiers who died defending it.
            “Restrepo” is so stark and so realistic that you may decide you’d rather imagine what it must be like than see for yourself.  Genteel people will stay away in droves from this film, because it’s something we just don’t like to think about.  But it’s a strong, stark testimony to the sweating, swearing, courageous, macho, tattooed, gun-toting, anonymous young men who fight for America every day.
 
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Pastor, Grace Presbyterian Church, Greenville , Texas